Basic Comma Use

    The use of commas where unnecessary is as awkward as the absence of commas where necessary. 

    So you can't always carry a handwriting book around with you, right? Well, here's something you can carry around for a while: index cards. 

    An excellent way to avoid comma errors is to write down on an index card the basic comma functions and then read them when waiting in line somewhere, anywhere: a stoplight, a bank, the grocery, the doctor, the dentist, a fast food drive through, a class to begin, the snack bar, etc. How often do we find ourselves waiting in line for something? How easily can we stick a few index cards in a shirt pocket?

    Try it a couple of times or more every other day or so and you'll begin to establish far more familiarity with comma functions, which you can use to better determine when to use commas and when not to use them.

    Let's see: what are some basic functions that commas fulfill in typical, formal expository writing?

    1. Compound sentences:
      • John loves eating enchiladas, but Marsha finds them distasteful.
      • Lennie returned to consciousness, but the police had not arrived.
    2. At the end of introductory dependent clauses:
      • When I looked up into the sky, the sun blinded me!
      • If I find Carlos, I'll strangle him!
    3. To separate items in a series (a series = 3 + ):
      • George grows eggplants, corn, radishes, and mushrooms.
      • Biology, math, and English are my most favorite subjects.
    4. Introductory phrases:
      • Looking at the ground, Bubba ran into a tree.
      • Without knowing why or how, I lifted the end of the car from the ground.
    5. Transitional elements:
      • On the other hand, there are five fingers.
      • Jayne speaks harshly of Jorge. For example, she says he's as wortheless as a turtle  with air brakes.
    6. Coordinate adjectives:
      • She wrote a formal, expository paper.
      • Juanita fell from a tall, poorly built ladder.
    7. Non-essential (nonrestrictive) elements:
      • John, who graduated from school in 1978, will be the featured speaker. 
      • Uvalde, famous for its spaghetti trees, is located in the Hill Country.
    8. Quotation signals:
      • Like Albert says, "America is a land of promise, especially during a political campaign!"
      • Leonard Johnson writes, "Now is the time for all good citizens to come forward in agreement." 
    9. Setting off both ends of a year when used with day/month, or a state when used with a city name (unless item comes at end of sentence):
      • September 11, 2001, is a date we will never forget.
      • Dallas, Texas, is the official home of the Dallas Cowboys.

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